Scientists Work on Rare Mammoth Skull at South Coast Museum in Public View

Feb 17, 2017

The Channel Islands are famous for the tiny island fox. But, did you know that they were also home to mammoths – weighing anywhere from 2,000 to 20,000 pounds?

Researchers are now preserving a rare mammoth fossil that was discovered on the Channel Islands, and you can get a firsthand look as they try to learn more about it.

Monica Bugbee is using a dental pick and brushes to clean this five-foot long mammoth skull with its large tusks that’s about 13,000 years old. 

“I’m working to remove the dirt, remove the rock, very very gently to make sure that the bone stays intact. And after I get it cleaned up, I’m treating things with preservatives to make sure that it stays stable,” she said.

Bugbee, a Fossil Preparator from the Mammoth Site in South Dakota, is here at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History to prepare this skull for research.

She said this may be the best preserved mammoth skull ever found.

“Having that back part of the skull intact and having both tusks intact is really spectacular,” she said.

Holly Minear from Carpenteria said she stopped by to see the scientists at work.

“When you actually see these guys over here with their little – what I call dental tools – digging into the dirt. It was like ‘Oh, that’s how you do it,’” she said.

The skull was discovered in an eroding stream bank on Santa Rosa Island by a National Park Service intern in 2014. It was excavated in September, flown off the island by helicopter and then transported by truck to its new home at the museum.

Elizabeth Chapin, a park guide at Channel Islands National Park, said 14-foot tall Columbian mammoths roamed North America about one million years ago and migrated to the Channel Islands during the past two ice ages.

“The Columbian Mammoth came over and because of the scarcer food supply, less space on the islands, became the Pygmy Mammoth. That smaller size. So, only four to six feet high at the shoulder,” she said.

Chapin said the skull is unusual because of its size.

“Could either by a Pygmy. It looks a little bit too big for that and then a little bit too small for a Columbian. So, the possibility of this being an interim species is really exciting,” she said.

Another possibility is that it’s a juvenile Columbian Mammoth, and there were multiple migrations to the island.

Don Morris, a retired Channel Islands National Park archeologist, said he’s intrigued because the skull dates back 13,000 years when the oldest human skeletal remains in North America were found on Santa Rosa Island.

“The question for many many years has been ‘Did the arrival of people in North America cause the extinction of the mammoths?’. But I think the kind of investigations we can do on this critter will go a long way toward answering that .”

Morris is cleaning up a shoulder blade fossil while another scientist is working on a vertebrae. Both were discovered near the site of the skull, but only research will determine whether they belong to the same mammoth.

Meanwhile, at a table nearby, children are having their own archeological learning experience. They use chisels and paint brushes to cut through plaster to uncover 400 to 450 million year old marine fossils.

“I have a shark tooth,” said Alex Montoya of Ventura.

He said he’s having fun.

"You get to dig for fossils. That’s what I like about this very much,” he said.

While this fossil activity doesn’t take long, preparing the mammoth skull is expected to take months.

“I’m hoping that the public gets an appreciation for the whole process of what paleontologists go through from start to finish,” said Paul Collins, Curator of Vertebrae Zoology at the Museum.

He said once the specimen is preserved and research is conducted, he hopes to put the mammoth skull on public display.

Visitors are welcome to watch and interact with scientists as they work on the mammoth skull on Saturday and Monday afternoons from 1 to 5 pm throughout this month.